Robbie Nicol, the respected New Zealand-born Sydney-based interior designer, has brought her eclectic design ethos to Australian homes for more than 40 years. She brings an element of surprise to every room, and her fashion sense is every bit as colourful and maximalist as the spaces she designs. She's got style unlike anyone else, and her quirky outfits are the talk of every party. To many, she's a fashion and interior design icon.
Earlier this month she invited us inside her Woollahra, Sydney, home to peruse her archival wardrobe and jewellery box. The converted cottage is a reflection of her eccentric wardrobe, which is filled with beautiful fabrics, collectable items, statement accessories and vintage pieces in loose, languid cuts that have a slouchy nonchalance.
Her original style has been passed down to daughter Phoebe, who is also an interior designer and a co-funder of online antiques platform The Vault, which she started with her partner Jeremy Bowker in 2017. This was followed by the launch of her own interior-architecture firm, Phoebe Nicol, this year. They share a love of layering vintage pieces with contemporary designers, both at home and in what they wear, as well as an appreciation for animal prints and shades of black.
Neither Nicol owns a pair of jeans. “We prefer floating tops with leggings and beautiful fabrics,” says Robbie, who often sends a photo of her outfit to her daughter for approval before venturing out.
She probably needn’t.
“I can’t tell you how many times people approach Mum on the street saying how they love her style,” Phoebe says.
Broadsheet: How would you describe your personal style?
Robbie Nicol:[I’m always] draped in beautiful fabrics – never [in anything] fitted or tailored.
Phoebe Nicol: Character, comfort and quality. Basic undertones with statement pieces.
BS: How important is what you wear in your line of work?
RN: It’s very important. I believe that your sense of fashion is a reflection of your interior style, so it’s important you dress accordingly when meeting clients and remain consistently well groomed.
PB: In any creative industry I think you need to take consideration in how you present yourself.
BS: What does an average work week look like for you?
PN: Owning my own business means no two days are ever the same. I’m always jumping between client meetings, installs, sourcing, answering emails and spending time at The Vault.
BS: How do you get dressed for work in the morning? Are there any rituals or rules you follow?
PN: It really depends on what kind of day I have ahead. On an average day I'll throw on a Lee Mathews shirt dress or a fabulous coat, accessorised with some Gucci sneakers.
BS: How does your dress sense reflect your attitudes as an interior designer?
RN: My fashion sense is out there, eccentric … It’s a mix of vintage pieces, which I always rely on in my work.
PN: I guess in some ways it’s similar to interior design in that I’m always in the pursuit of quality – good materials and craftsmanship.
BS: What’s your earliest fashion memory?
RB: As a child I lived in the country. We had a dressmaker called Valmai who was very much a part of our family. I remember, at that young age, wearing beautiful dark-green velvet dresses and ballet shoes. I was always aware of fashion trends as a teenager and Valmai continued to make my dresses until I was in my twenties.
PB: One of my earliest fashion memories is sitting in [the now-closed] Robbie Ingham boutique in Sydney or Cosé Ipanema waiting to give Mum the thumbs up or the thumbs down. I was her little juror. I still often receive texts from Mum of potential purchases waiting for feedback.
BS: Who are your style icons?
RN: [Australian designers] Carla Zampatti and Alistair Trung.
PN: I can’t say there’s just one person … but I would certainly say I’ve been influenced by Mum. She’s always been incredibly stylish, and I feel she is getting more eccentric as she ages. I love to layer like Mum – that’s definitely something I’ve learnt from her.
BS: Phoebe – how would you describe your mum’s style?
PN: Fabulous. I think her style really reflects her personality. She’s such a wonderful, unique and generous soul. There is always a touch of eccentricity in every outfit. She has a wonderful collection of accessories and is never afraid to stand out.
BS: Robbie – how would you describe your daughter’s dress sense? And would you say Phoebe’s style has rubbed off on you?
RN: I would definitely say Phoebe’s style is similar to mine. She certainly has her say when she thinks Mum is on the wrong track, too. I often send images in the dressing room to Phoebe for her approval.
BS: Phoebe, any hand-me-downs you’ve inherited from your mum that you love?
PN: My collection of rings – including my engagement ring. I recently reset the engagement ring that my [late] father gave to Mum.
BS: What do you look for in a good work wardrobe?
RN: I always draw on black for basics, the odd leopard print dress or coat, designer scarves, and colourful footwear. Costume jewellery and glasses are the icing on my cake.
PN: Layers in shades of black.
BS: Who are your favourite fashion designers right now?
RN: [Japanese labels] Issey Miyake, Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto, [as well as Sydney kaftan label] Camilla. These pieces go on and on … and I just layer them with new accessories each year. I have limited wardrobe space so whenever something new is added, something must be given away.
PN: Comme des Garçons, Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake, Pleats Please, Alistair Trung and Lee Matthews. It’s about the fabrics and the way the garments fall. They’re all incredibly well-made. I feel like those are the pieces in my wardrobe that I’ll have forever. I’ve just discovered the Cie Cie Agency, which represent some really exciting new designers. I love their style.
BS: What’s your approach to wearing jewellery?
RN: I love my jewels – they’re my signature. Especially anything from Lucy Folk.
PN: Big rings, always stacked, and big statement earrings at night.
BS: Heels or flats?
RN: Sadly, my heel days are gone. It’s now flat shoes, slides or wedge shoes.
BS: How do you lean on each other for style advice?
RN: We have discussions about what we will wear before going to meetings with clients, especially an initial meeting where you pitch your concept to prospective clients. We like to complement one another, too. Recently we’ve been workshopping my outfit for Phoebe’s wedding next year as I’m walking her down the aisle. I have so many choices and a decision probably won’t be made until Phoebe’s dress is finished. In the meantime, I’m always on the lookout for interesting pieces.
PN: Mum and I have always loved to shop – especially together. Get the two of us on a shopping spree and it can be lethal.
BS: Robbie, you’ve built a beautiful eyewear collection over the years. Where do you shop for spectacles?
RN: Eyewear is my favourite accessory, apart from jewellery and scarves. Once I needed to wear glasses for reading, I took it to the next level. My favourite eyewear shop is One Point Seven Four and recently I met the owner who is now making custom pieces for me. Celine’s frames are currently my favourite.
BS: What’s your morning and evening make-up regime?
RB: The morning beauty regime is a quick eye application and then I’m off to the gym. I don’t like wearing too much make-up.
PN: After I wash and prep my face I always start the day with sunblock. I use Aspect Sun CC cream. Then I apply my Chanel foundation and a touch of Bobbi Brown highlighter. In the evening, it’s relatively simple – I wash my face with Clinique cleanser and moisturise like crazy. I’m also a sucker for an evening bath. I love my Joanne Malone Red Roses bath oil – it goes everywhere with me. I love to layer fragrances, my favourite being Santal 33 by Le Labo, Comme des Garçons Green Play and Le Fille de Berlin by Serge Lutens.
BS: If you could choose an item of clothing from a film to hang in your wardrobe, what would it be?
PN: I’d say any piece from Factory Girl by George Hickenlooper. Edie Sedgwick is such a style icon.
BS: Describe your approach to interiors?
RN: My approach is essentially eclectic and I like to bring an element of surprise to each room.
PB: I celebrate the best of the old and insert a punch of the new. I like to combine clean lines with luxurious materials such as natural stones, raw linens and silk fringing. And I like strong pieces with both character and restraint. I also believe it’s important to create a house with a soul.